It looks like nothing ever happened. Behror has grown, given its strategic location between Delhi and Jaipur, and has grown closer to the National Highway. A bustling market sells cola, chips and tea to weary commuters in the dry heat, some waiting for a bus. Two years ago, on an April day, there were also men waiting. And as they came across a vehicle carrying cows, they attacked — and Pehlu Khan was killed.
Today, there are no reminders of the incident at the site, but it lives on in conversations about Elections 2019. And it is where the politics of the region and of Alwar, which votes on May 6, begins.
Sukhdev Yadav owns a tea stall next to the Jaguwas crossing where the lynching took place. And there is no doubt in his mind that it affects his politics. “The cow is our God. The Muslims from Mewat transport the cattle, pile them on top of each other, and cut them later. It is our duty to prevent that. So there were boys that were checking the vehicles and got angry. Now, a Congress government has come, the climate is changing. The BJP must come back at the Centre, so that these people learn that they cannot do things like this again,” he says.
About 40 km away, in Alwar’s Mewat region that straddles Rajasthan and Haryana, home to the poor Meo Muslim community, the conversation is playing out differently. The Congress candidate for the seat is Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, former MP of the region, former Union Minister and a descendant of the erstwhile Alwar royal family. As he campaigns in Bhaunkar village, with a sizeable number of Muslims, his message is clear. “The BJP is dividing our community, making people fight with each other. Look at what Alwar has become known for, caste violence, and violence between religions. This election is important. Use your vote wisely,” he tells a small audience of a hundred people.
Five kilometres ahead is the largely Yadav-dominated village of Kutupur. The messaging is subtler. But again Singh says, “They are getting us to fight each other.”
The BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha polls is Mahant Balak Nath, born into a Yadav family from Behror, but now the head of the Asthal Bohar Math in Rohtak. His predecessor in the Math, Chand Nath, was the victor in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, beating Jitendra Singh by over two lakh votes. Chand Nath then passed away, necessitating a bypoll, which was won by the Congress’s Karan Singh Yadav — a win BJP workers attribute to anger against former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje.
As Nath campaigns through Alwar, his message is simple. A vote for him is a vote to strengthen Prime Minister Modi, and at each rally that he attends, it is this message that he sticks to. Yet, the saffron is unmissable. It is in his posters, in his attire, and in the BJP workers that accompany him.
But in his “arrival”, there is an opportunity for the Congress. The pattern is familiar. The BJP candidate is fighting in the name of Modi, the Congress candidate is fighting on his own name.
Says Santosh Meena, who runs a dhaba outside the entrance to the Sariska Tiger reserve: “The party makes no difference. We voted for Modi in 2014, but Chand Nath never came here for all of his five years, and Alwar suffered. Now Balak Nath has come. He was six when he left Alwar and went to Rohtak. He should have stayed there. The Yadavs will back the BJP, but everyone else wants the Bhanwar.”
It does not mean that Meena is not fond of Modi. Just that he doesn’t want an outsider. “If the BJP had a different candidate, things would have been different,” he says.
Nowhere is this insider, outsider campaign more evident that in the city of Alwar. There are billboards of the Congress, and the BJP at every crossing, perhaps a sign of how the seat has turned into a prestige battle. Every BJP poster has a photograph of Modi, and Balak Nath side by side, their photos the same size. The Congress posters have photographs of Rahul Gandhi, and enumerate different promises such as Nyay, a message not very loudly told on the ground itself. Its other posters are of a smiling Jitendra Singh all on his own.
What further lends itself to this narrative as a counter to the Prime Minister’s popularity and Hindu polarisation, is the reversal of a common trope in Indian politics. Often during campaigns, the message used is that a confluence of the state and the Centre will help the region. In Alwar, the Congress argument is a confluence of the MP and the Congress state government. “Our government is in the state now. Who will call the minister and tell them to do your work? Me or the Babaji? If he wants to do something, he should go to his temple and pray for good rain,” he says.
Outside the Alwar fort in the evening, these narratives seem to merge in one big debate. The participants are a group of young men, between 20 and 25 years old, their livelihoods attached to the fort. Some sell food, others are guides, some own autos. There aren’t enough jobs. Most still like Modi, but their electoral choice is rarely that simple.
“The Prime Minister has not delivered everything, but maybe he should get more time, especially after what he did to Pakistan. The Congress is promising jobs, but the state government promised an unemployment wage and has done nothing on that. Even we believe cow slaughter should be banned, and those transporting should be punished. But in Alwar and in Rajasthan, tourism is one of the few industries left, and the MP is important. If people get the impression that there is always violence, it will affect the market. The choice is difficult,” says one of them.